Posted by Jo Zayner, PhD on 16th Jan 2023
A Brief History of Biohacking
I started a story-letter called Amateur Gods at Substack. This is one of the things I wrote there. Please subscribe as I won't be posting here very much. Check out the rest. I am trying to publish there 2-4 times a month. I figure it is a much better way for people to see my writings. Many of the things I have written have been turned down by traditional publishers and so I see this as an avenue to express myself to the world.
Jo Zayner, PhD
Celebrity biohacker Josiah Zayner is under investigation for practicing medicine without a license. — A grueling and grotesque biohacking experiment: Josiah Zayner experiments with fecal transplants. — Josiah Zayner: the person who hacked his own DNA.
From the headlines it might be hard to believe but when I started down the career path towards becoming a scientist I didn't even know what a Biohacker was. I know, Jo Zayner doing boring academic science and not injected himself with shit, that's crazy, amirite? I'm definitely not the first Biohacker. Not the first to experiment on themselves or the first to do science in my apartment. I was just lucky enough to have been around since the early days of Biohacking. I have seen it grow from when it was just a bunch of people bitching on the diybio mailing list. I learned through all this that Biohacking is more than just doing science outside traditional environments. Biohackers are building something. Creating resources so _anyone_ can participate, even crazy people like Rich Lee. Biohacking has created a participatory feedback loop that will make sure one day their numbers are far greater than traditional scientists. That's what makes it so revolutionary. That's what makes Biohacking a modern invention.
It's not clear when the first “Biohack” happened. The first time say, someone genetically modified E. coli or some basic microorganism outside a lab. Maybe it was Rob Carlson circa the mid-late 2000s? There was the infamous arrest of artist Steve Kurtz in 2004 for growing bacteria and yeast but that seemed to lack the intent of Biohacking. It's even more complicated because the definition of Biohacker is pretty fluid. Originally, the term and ethos were looked down upon so it wasn't really used. If you ask Hank Greely, Biohacker is still a pejorative. In the early days, the term “DIY Biologist” was more en vogue because it sounded less scary. Me though, I hate that term. It implies that a scientist outside a traditional lab is somehow inferior. They can't be a Biologist. They are a _DIY_ Biologist.
When those inside and outside professional labs have access to the same equipment and resources. They can and do literally do the same work. So why does one group need a preface? To me the “DIY Biologist” name supports the same elitist academic science attitude that we/I are trying to destroy. What’s the point in just rebuilding a less funded academia? The DIY Biologists I know are trying to fit into the system while Biohackers are trying to break free.
I was in the system for many years I've seen it all and it's ugly under the surface of what the public sees. If you don't fit into the stereotype and fall into line your chances of academic success are nonexistent. There is an extreme lack of diversity both socio-culturally and of thought. It probably wasn't until around 2010 that I began to see myself as a Biohacker. As someone who didn’t fit in the mold. I was working on my PhD at University of Chicago at the time so as you can imagine I was an arrogant brash asshole. I was trying to publish my first paper. And after staring into the abyss one too many times I realized Academic science wasn't what I imagined. I wanted to work on the crazy stuff. The experiments everyone else was hesitant to do even though they were always on our minds.
And so I started doing experiments in my apartment in my spare time. I would fall asleep at the workbench in my bedroom at 4AM. I was enthralled. That freedom of expression I had through Biohacking drove me away from academia.
The sentiment of doing independent science seemed to be in the beer. It was weird because from like 2009-2010 the idea of doing science outside academia all of the sudden became kind of popular. The mailing list was blowing up with names that today are recognizable in the Biotech world. Two or three Biohackerspaces popped up across the US. It was a foundational time. People didn't really know what to do. Should we make GFP fluorescent yogurt? Sequence anal bacteria? Try and do something groundbreaking? Whatever it was the limited availability of resources made it so Biohackerspaces were where it was at.
It's funny that they are called Biohackerspaces considering most who venture there dislike the term Biohacker. A Biohackerspace is a lab that charges people for access, sometimes around $100-$200 a month. They have some general equipment and resources available but most supplies are self furnished. Ima be honest. Most spaces I have visited are generally more bougie than useful and are more like social clubs for tech people interested in science. I'm not against capitalism. I run a business that sells genetic engineering supplies. I get it. They need money to keep the doors open. It’s just sad that the practice of a free open lab doesn't exist even to this day. Would technology even be where it is today without free public access to computers? I dream of the day that’s possible with science. Because really, in order to exist without gatekeepers you need to remove the walls. (*sidenote La Jolla library did actually have a public biolab for a time - according to their website it is currently shut-down).
For science to truly be accessible anyone should be able to do any experiment at anytime anywhere. That's Biohacking. Then you're only limited by your imagination. Well, reality also. And um' laws, if the Feds are watching. Spoiler, they are.
I grew up during the 90s computer hacker era and was an active participant. I was part of the hacking group Legions of the Underground. 31337 I know. Everything was founded on the principles of radical access and autonomy. People don't own knowledge and we shouldn't be trying to control who can access technology. Innovation exploded. Science, the one field that should be forcible cramming knowledge into people’s gourds is instead one of the biggest gatekeepers of knowledge in the world. Expensive paywalls and PhDs required. How is everyone ok with that? I'm not ok with that.
Around 2014 I started my company, The ODIN. I left my job as a NASA scientist in 2016 to run it fulltime (←100% this sentence is superfluous and just to tell you I worked at NASA). The goal was to have a centralized website where Biohackers could get all their supplies for the lowest price on the market. Ease of access would mean more people would start doing genetic engineering in their kitchen. Experimenting on whatever they wanted. When technologies are made accessible it leads to creation. Even better, it leads to people creating beautiful things. The printing press, the automobile, the computer, NFTs. Wait, sorry, not NFTs. Science needs a little more of “Fuck it. I'ma just do that because it's beautiful.” That's Biohacking.
There weren't any genetic engineering technological breakthroughs between 2000 when there was no Biohacking and 2014 when it was common place for budding Biohackers to have genetically modified E. coli, a simple process that is a staple of modern genetic engineering labs. Putting DNA into an organism was done exactly the same way. IS STILL done exactly the same way. Once there was this nucleus of knowledge and skill things escalated quickly.
I injected myself with a CRISPR plasmid in 2017. Ostensibly, to genetically modify my muscles to make them grow bigger. I actually was trying to raise awareness about the possibility of Biohacking. It went viral. Despite being non-viral gene delivery.
I'm so sorry for that bad science joke.
Not long after, I was sitting on my couch and scrolling through Facebook. A post came into my feed, some randos we're going to do a live injection of a gene therapy to try and cure HIV. Whatttt the fuuuckkk. I thought it would be years before someone followed in my irresponsible footsteps. Things were happening way way faster than I anticipated. The fact that, my predictions were so far off scared me a little. It meant that Biohacking was out of everyone’s control. The press were thirsty for this shit and that encouraged a whole slew of injections afterward that probably made Biohacking look more crazy than competent. That’s Biohacking.
Biohackers began to push boundaries. Medical, surgical, genetic, you name it. Normally, in a traditional academic environment human experimentation would require forms and committees, meetings and approvals. Biohackers found their niche there. You don't need approval to test on yourself. And you don't need an ethics committee if you are operating outside an organization. I actually love where Biohacking is going. At first I was like, “Oh fuck, what have I done.” But that time period created the Biohacking aesthetic most people pursue nowadays. One that is imperfect and flawed for sure but one that favors brashness and style above all else. Let's be honest, if you are going to destroy the system you might as well do it in a brash and stylish way. That’s Biohacking.
To me, it all changed in 2021. Before any covid vaccines had been released to the public David Ishee, Dariia Dantseva and myself successfully made and tested a covid vaccine. We saw antibody responses which is more than the majority of people vaccinated in the world can say. Still, it was largely ignored by the mainstream press and I was banned from YouTube for life for showing people step-by-step how to do it. It was shocking. We were living in the future but the world couldn’t keep up. This is where I believe Biohackers can exist. At the intersection of the future and reality. We can create breakthroughs that are only being held back because of bureaucracy or fear. I’ve been banned, ridiculed and harassed by the government. Others will be also. That’s Biohacking.
Biohacking doesn't seem to be slowing down and that’s hard to comprehend when it went from virtually nonexistent to even beginners being able to engineer human cells in their kitchen in under 10 years. Individuals now have the Biotech power of governments and large pharma companies. And Biohacking is different. It's new. Despite being in the pitch-deck of every modern biotech CEO this is not like the computer revolution. No one had to create new technology for a DIY covid vaccine to exist. It is only the monopolization of knowledge and information by traditional science that has prevented biohacking from flourishing earlier and growing faster.
That should scare you.
The state of science is a tragedy. In interviews people always ask me how Biohackers will publish papers or participate in other ceremonial activities. My response is, "They won't". Biohacking isn't meant to be Science 2.0. It's evolved to become a completely new species distantly separated from its phylogenic origin. The way science is done hasn't changed much in the past 500 years and its shriveled corpse of outdated principles has been due a funeral for a long time. The thing that is going to save us from science?